The problem with VR, gays in gaming, and learning to kill your games: 7 things we learned at GDC 2014

Our week in San Francisco summarised

The problem with VR, gays in gaming, and learning to kill your games: 7 things we learned at GDC 2014

As I sit here attempting to sum up the events of the previous week over in sunny San Francisco, it's only the smell of the venti latte I've just scurried across to Starbucks to purchase that's preventing my head from slamming against the keyboard.

For the Brits that made the trek across the Atlantic nine or 10 days ago, Starbucks – and San Francisco's other assorted coffee establishments – became a regular haunt.

The jetlag that greets you on the way out, however, is a mere preview of the one that awaits for your return trip.

Is it all worth it? Undoubtedly. Much like Gamescom, GDC is one of the most important events on the mobile calendar, spread across a week of talks, meetings, interviews and – just as important as all of the above – parties.

Unlike any other event, there's an undouted sense of glitz and glamour that surrounds GDC. It's like a wave that crashes across the Bay Area and soaks everything it touches in glossy gaming goodness.

From national news media coverage to passers by in the street asking what "that funny tag around your neck is" (one old couple asking me if the event was for "games people", tapping out their hands across an invisible keyboard) GDC manages to dominate a city that more typically dominates all who visit.

GDC is also one of the few conferences out there with a decent logo and rather swish branding. Kudos to Simon Carlass and co. for that.

The one problem is has, however, is it's size.

Whether you were sat at home watching the news stories from the show floor streaming in or you were there in person, wandering around the expo in a daze, chances are there's a hell of a lot of 'stuff' (that's the technical term for conference happenings) that you missed.

There's a stack load of stuff I missed, too. So, here's what I took away from GDC 2014. Feel free to pester me with what you learned in the comments section below:

Click here to view the list »
  • 1 It's time for developers to start killing their games

    By the time the last day of GDC rolls around, your brain is pretty much full and much of your mind is already mentally boarding your plane home and popping your carry on luggage in the bins overhead.

    Surprising, then, that one of the most interesting conversations I had of the entire week was in the final throws of the conference. I sat down with Wooga's founder and CEO Jens Begemann in the Samowar Lounge above Moscone North on the Friday afternoon to talk killing.

    Game killing, that is.

    Wooga's 'hit filter' sees the developer cut down around 60 prospective new games at a time to just two new worldwide releases. According to Begemann, however, criticism that Wooga is something of a game factory as a result is misplaced. Rather, Wooga's filtering process is one that should be adopted across the industry.

    His argument is a logical one: all the major app stores are utterly flooded with games, most of which are average to good. Finding the truly great games in the midst of the rest of the noise is difficult for consumers, and scores of top releases are failing to find an audience as a result.

    In short, good simply isn't good enough. Begemann would know, too: in the middle of the interview, out popped the Wooga man's iPhone complete with two canned games – a match three and a car-based endless runner – that, to my eyes, looked pretty decent.

    But pretty decent is all they were, and in Wooga's view, flooding mobile marketplaces with 'pretty decent' games is to the longterm detriment to the rest of the industry.

    The problem is, of course, that it's especially hard for one or two person indies to gain outside perspective – if you've been working hard on a game, you're too close to it. You need someone from the outside to come in and tell you when a game simply isn't good enough.

    Essentially, mobile quickly became fixated with numbers – the size of app stores, the number of new games released every week - and the story hasn't changed. Now's the time for the market to mature, however. Now's the time for us to focus on quality rather than quantity.

  • 2 The publisher is back

    Well, the publisher has been back for a fair while in truth, but for a long time Chillingo was the only major mobile publisher in the space. Currently, the kind of developers that would have previously been tempted to reach out to the EA outfit (and in many cases, did just that) are launching their own publishing initiatives.

    But why now? What's changed?

    Rather than simply looking to pile third-party games onto their books, two chats at GDC illustrated to me why the publisher is firmly back in vogue.

    For Unity, its publishing venture – Unity Games, launched at Unite 2013 in Vancouver – is a logical extension of its existing suite. The sheer number of developers that use Unity and its associated services means the company has an unrivalled connection with scores of studios.

    Speaking to David Helgason on top of Unity's impressive stand mid way through the week, the impression I got was Unity's relationship with developers is such that studios were actively lobbying for the company to get into the publishing business long before it made the decision to do so.

    As a result, Unity's motivation isn't to mop up hundreds of titles a year, but rather to take on games on a case by case basis.

    Sometimes developers will just need a bit of advice. At other times, actually handling the publishing side of the business for them will be the best option. Frankly, Unity would be doing its userbase a disservice if it didn't add publishing to its arsenal.

    Similarly, another outfit making a move into mobile publishing is Backflip – a longtime smartphone stalwart that made its name with the likes of Paper Toss and Ragdoll Blaster, amongst others.

    Speaking to CEO Julian Farrior, it appears the firm's publishing wing is akin to the launch of Backflip 2.0: the developer taking the experience it amassed in the early days of the App Store to enable other outfits to enjoy similar levels of success today.

    It's less about clambering for masses of new IP or transforming the business into a publishing machine, but rather developers helping other developers – forming partnerships and agreements between outfits that have similar ambitions but differing skillsets.

  • 3 The gap between F2P and premium continues to grow

    The anger has died down. All talk of free-to-play being 'evil' has, for the most part, dissolved. Harmony has been restored. But, talking to developers either on the show floor or at our Big Indie Pitch about their new games, the question of how they monetise their titles was as divisive as ever.

    For me at least, the number of premium games I saw arguably outweighed the free-to-play ones thrust into my hands, and that's something I've not encountered at a conference for some time.

    There was a sound logic to the explanations behind the decision to go the paid route, however.

    The two responses I heard time and again was either that the game had been designed with premium in mind, and so attempting to take it free this late in development would be a mistake – which I'd say is spot on – or that getting free-to-play right is so complex and the market so competitive, they'd be better off sticking to what they know.

    As a long time supporter of the right for free-to-play to exist (and someone who regularly rolls his eyes when people launch into an expressly anti-F2P rant), I'm comfortable with those explanations. The biggest problem with F2P is that, for a long time, it's been weighed down by games that simply don't suit the model, pushed out by developers that (often reluctantly) have layered in in-app purchases at the last minute.

    If my sweep of GDC is anything to go by, we're finally getting to the stage where developers aren't adopting F2P without consideration about the type of game they're working on and the audience they want to reach. And that has to be a good thing, right?

  • 4 It's time to demystify game development

    You can always count on Vlambeer talks to draw a healthy crowd.

    There's an honesty to the studio's delivery that connects with vast portions of the indie scene, so used to turning up to conference talks only to have numbers and graphs forced down their throats.

    This honesty was once again in plentiful supply at GDC. I'd overheard Vlambeer's Rami Ismail talking in the press room earlier in the day talking about Train Jam, the (then) forthcoming launch of Luftrausers and hastily finding a musician to play out his talk.

    Twenty minutes later, I was sat in the audience as Rami and Jan Willem Nijman (always endearingly referred to as 'JW' on such occassions) took to the stage to talk 'demystifying game development'.

    Both in person in the press room and on the stage in front of hundreds just minutes later, Rami spoke as if talking to a friend. He laid out Vlambeer's most recent 'experiment' – developing a game in front of an audience.

    That's the approach the studio has taken with Nuclear Throne, the live development of which is regularly broadcast on Twitch, with regular builds pushed out via Steam Early Access. But why?

    "It's interesting to see where the disconnect is between what making games is and what making games actually is," he detailed.

    "People are always surprised when they find out something like you have to program in a bullet hitting a wall, for instance. They're like, 'what, you don't just label it bullet'?"

    "Performative Game Development is not for every game and not for every team," he concluded.

    "But for us, developing and marketing is the same thing right now, which is brilliant, and it helps us educate gamers, and that's sort of amazing. It might be about time to demystify game development a little bit."

  • 5 There's strength in numbers

    As anyone who ran into me during GDC's final day will know, I spent much of Friday hanging around the stand laid on by UKIE – the trade association that represents much of the games industry in the UK.

    It wasn't just because UKIE had the bestsandwiches on offer, either. Gathered together were scores of indies from across Britain all keen not only to show off their wares, but also to network.

    Developers were introducing other developers to other developers. They were also introducing other developers to me.

    For such a tiny island, the UK games industry has a nasty knack for isolation. While you can count on seeing a clutch of developers at pretty much every major event held in the country, many more never make it out and are entirely unaware of the scores of other one or two person studios operating within yards of them.

    If nothing else, UKIE is fast becoming the de facto focal point for indies around the UK who want to link up in a national capacity, and linking up – whether in UKIE's offices down in London, or via more locally focused outfits such as Full Indie UK or GameDevNorth – looks to be increasingly important.

    The UKIE stand at GDC 2014

    If we're going to take Wooga's advice and stop flooding the marketplace with average-to-okay games, we're going to need to step out of our bedrooms or backyard sheds and open up our games to our peers.

    More importantly, we're going to need to be honest with each other when we think games aren't up to scratch, rather than patting our friends on the back and offering a "better luck next time, eh?" when the game in question falls flat on its face upon launch.

    In short, we all need to do whatever is required to come together, and not just once a year amongst the sunny streets of San Francisco.

  • 6 Gays game too

    I don't remember a major conference in the time I've been doing this job that's dedicated quite as much of its schedule to the topic of the representation of women and minorities in games as this year's GDC did.

    Particularly stark was Manveer Heir of BioWare Montreal's talk on the Wednesday where, based on a host of stats, he laid out just how many games adequately or accurately represent people of all sexualities and ethnicities within play.

    As you may have guessed, games that meet either requirement are few in number, and the frustration within the industry as to how developers and publishers represent people who don't fit into the 'straight white men' mould is beginning to build.

    Beyond suggesting that the major players are unwilling to take risks (Heir pointing to how scores of major leads – from Uncharted's Drake Fortune to Alan Wake – all essentially look identical), it's hard to put a finger on just why developers are unwilling to depict gay characters as anything other than figures of ridicule, or ethic characters as negative stereotypes.

    It's not as if there aren't plenty of gay people working in games, for instance.

    The annual Gay Game Industry Professionals (GGP) party on the Wednesday night was packed with folk who have worked on some of the biggest games and/or write for some of the most prominent websites on the planet. Oh, and I was there too. Talking about Kylie Minogue mainly, I seem to remember...

    Either way, the idea that the games industry can only cater for the wants of heterosexual caucasian men frankly needs to be smashed.

    As Heir concluded in his talk, lazy representations of minorities – or no representation at all – can have a tangible impact on how those groups are perceived amongst the wider public, and if developers and publishers are unwilling to take a 'risk' and depict a wider array of characters in games, we need to start calling them up on that. We need to make a bit of noise.

    And when we've made an impact, we can look back and say "it started at GDC". In San Francisco, no less. That sounds fairly fitting.

  • 7 VR headsets are a flash farce

    I'll state this openly: though I've previously had a go with an Oculus Rift demo, I didn't queue up for another bash at GDC.

    I didn't stand in line for Sony's Project Morpheus either, though I did witness plenty of journos singing its praises in the press room during the last few days of the conference.

    All throughout, however, there was something bugging me about this enthusiasm for virtual reality and the assurance from many that this is the way gaming is going. It didn't come to me, however, until the final day, when a developer sat talking to me in the UKIE stand asked what I'd thought of the show.

    Suddenly, I saw GDC – and the games industry in general – from two perspectives.

    On the one hand, you have games increasingly looking to embed social connectivity and bring players together. Whether you're talking pure social games, or simply those that tap into video sharing or recording technology like Twitch or Everyplay, the trend appears to be about connecting people – even on console.

    Competitiveness drives user retention, so whether it's a friend beating your top score on Flappy Bird or crashing into a rival's Drivatar on Forza Motorsport 5, games of all kind are being designed to open themselves up to their communities.

    Earlier in the show, however, I'd watched with some amusement as a new add-on for Oculus was demoed to a line of attendees.

    The accessory in question allowed people to control hand movements in play, and the poor chap handling the stand looked utterly bored as, one after another, people locked themselves off to play a short demo where picking up a barnacle covered bottle on a desolate beach appeared to be main attraction.

    If you've ever watched anyone using a VR headset of any kind, it's an utterly ridiculous scene. Their body is still in the present, but their mind is utterly isolated.

    And this is what VR represents – taking people out of the real world where they're sharing their Flappy Bird scores and dropping them into another where, as things stand, they're utterly alone and fumbling around like a drunk.

    The technology is no doubt impressive but, for me, this isn't what consumers want and is an attempt to drag the games industry in the wrong direction.

    My message to Oculus and Sony? Don't fight the tide. Save VR headsets for old episodes of Tomorrow's World or that ill-advised Murder She Wrote story from the mid 90s. Lets knock lock ourselves off in virtual worlds – lets play together, and lets play everywhere.


With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.